Over the summer I have enjoyed watching several sports in the Olympics. The Netherlands did very well, and we saw many TV interviews with the athletes. What struck me most was that when they gave an account of what it takes to perform their sport on the highest level, most said that it was largely in the mind! Surprising!
The mind must familiarize itself with enduring pain when running or swimming or biking, or whatever sport. Constant training is a must, because the body gives signals to stop. The muscles become acidic, and with training, each athlete learns to overcome and breathe through this phase. When winning, the reward is that the mind and body become immediately joyful, and restoration is much quicker.
The second thing the athletes mentioned was the Netherlands team spirit, the joy of having all disciplines in one hotel during covid lock down, cheering the winning athletes from the balconies or windows.
How do we bring this to our tai chi, some of us being lifetime practitioners? I still remember the burning and shaking in my legs from my first classes over 40 years ago with Greg and Stan, staying in position and being encouraged to relax. “What do you mean relax?” I wondered. The only thing I could think was, “How can I get away?”
Several years later, when Patrick Watson was teaching beginning classes with Joop Brouwer and me on a stage as models, there were about 50 students and Patrick would personally adjust each and every person. That took ages, while Joop and I simply stood there. I had so many thoughts, like how could I walk out without losing face. But I didn’t leave, and neither did Joop. I overcame my own resistance and ego and found a capacity I did not think I had: to relax! It was a tremendous support to do this as a team together.
I still remember inside myself how to move from Cross Hands to Embrace Tiger Return to Mountain. Patrick would teach it with a smooth flow without stops before shifting weight. Joop and I did that many times over: one smooth motion. I find that the key to making relaxation your own in mind and body is to remain in tai chi positions. I can endure standing much longer in a group, with a focus for my mind. My guess is that this is true for all of us?
Over the years of thousands of classes, I cherish the times when we would go so slow, or stay in positions for a very long time, up to 20 minutes. I cherish beginning classes with time to relax and relax in positions. I cherish qigong movements (such as Center Pole/Lifting Hands) where we let go of weight, empty out, and accept and embrace ourselves as the Earth—letting yin embrace us to let yang emerge.
During children’s Roots & Branches sessions, we would hold positions for a long time as we played games like the Constant Bear with Looking Owl, each boy or girl in the circle making a ball (flowers, pears, iron, hearts, love) and passing it on to the next kid. Without saying anything, all wanted to have a turn, however long it took.
In conclusion, train your mind and then your body can do amazing things. Your mind can also let go, and we can rely on our ability to relax between Earth and Heaven. It is that simple in the end. Like a fairytale: “…and they lived happily ever after.” Ah, but what happens next? In the fairy tale the story is the interesting part, and I always wanted my father or siblings to tell me the story again and again.
Patrick Watson once said to Pat Gorman: “This was a perfect tai chi round.” Patty asked: “So what is next?” Patrick responded, “We do another round.”
So we do yet another tai chi round, together as a school, dedicated to our Olympics in body, mind, and spirit.
In gratitude to our teachers and students,
Gerrie Sporken is a senior teacher with the Tai Chi Foundation since 1977. Based in Amsterdam, she has also taught in England, Ireland, Austria, and the US. She holds a Master’s training in acupuncture and she assembled the Roots & Branches program along with the late Pat Gorman.
Photo by Jason Dent